When you do a trip of this length, sometimes places become repetitive, the exoticism begins to fade when you’ve seen your 100th wat and eaten your 100th fried rice, but there are many things that still cause that twinge of excitement. One of them is visiting a place, that you’ve imagined in your mind since childhood.
Born several years after the end of the Vietnam War, the only real knowledge I had of it came from Hollywood, Broadway and a couple of lectures in history class. Learning about it through these mediums, despite how gory or heart-wrenching it sometimes was, added a sense of romance and something exotic. I can honestly say now that any romantic or exotic notions I ever had about war have disappeared, but the curiosity about the places has remained.
So when we arrived in Saigon, I had no real expectations about what we would see. I only knew that this place that I only knew from movies was about to become real.
Saigon, officially named Ho Chi Minh City, after their beloved liberator, is orderly and manic in the same time. Over 8 million inhabitants buzzing around the city on over 2 million motorbikes; the roads appear to be complete chaos, cluttered with traffic, no proper crosswalks and traffic signals that everyone ignores- magically it all seems to work. Zen is the key to survival; when you step onto the road with hundreds of headlights rushing towards you, the key is to remain calm and fluid and believe that you will reach the other side.
The buildings (like the ones we saw in Chau Doc) are tall and narrow, brightly painted in pastel colors with pretty balconies and rooftop gardens. The ground levels are occupied with cafes,clothes shops, noodle shops and chic restaurants. The city is on the move, and their was no question on a Friday night that many of those chic restaurants were dominated by the locals and not the tourists.
We stayed in the tourist ghetto, the Ko San Road of Saigon. We were snatched up when we got off the bus by a guy advertising rooms for $6, it was in our budget and only 100m walk. It was hard to tell that our place was an offical hotel (our room was clean and modern though sometimes stifling hot) but there was no advertising from the outside, and each time we came in and out, we had to pass through the family’s alleyway noodleshop and their living quarters.
We started our visit of the city with the Ho Chi Minh City museum, with pretty architecture, it was a popular site for wedding pictures and on a Monday afternoon we saw at least three wedding couples posing for pictures. The museum gave us some interesting information on the resistance period against the French and later the Americans and the fall of Saigon (or liberation of Saigon depending which side you were on.) Outside there was an interesting display of old French cars (Renault and Peugot) from the 40’s and 50’s (they were on display because they played a historical role in the city, like transporting a resistance fighter, etc.) They also had a tank and plane confiscated from the Americans.
We then made a nice a little walking tour, to see the main post office, an impressive building left over from the French colonical time across the street from the Notre Dame cathedral. From the outside it resembled the Notre Dame Paris, except for the fact it was built out of red brick. We then made our way to the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), another reminder of colonial architecture, but a bit more foo foo and out of place among the modern Asian architecture. Our last stop, the waterfront, where we saw numerous cargo ships, an enormous cruise ship, and a bunch of kids splashing around in the muddy water who tried to get our attention by showing us their backsides. We splurged and ate authentic Italian pizza, a pleasant and needed break from rice and noodles.
Having been quite happy with our tour in the Mekong Delta, we used the same company, the Sinh Cafe, to book a day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the CaoDai temple. Once again we had an Asian-Elvis tour guide, who loved to talk. Unfortunately his accent was so bad, most of us had a headache by the end of the day and Fabien was ready to put in his earplugs. We did see some very interesting places though. The first stop, the CaoDai temple. CaoDaism is a Vietnamese religion founded in the 1920’s which blends the beliefs and practices of all of the major world religions. The three most influential religions in CaoDaism are Taoism, Confuscianism and Buddhism. There are over 2 million followers in Vietnam. The temple resembles a Christian cathedral in shape and size; the exterior is ornately decorated in bright pastel colors. It looks a little bit like something Disney created. The most important decorations on the outside are the lotus flowers and the left eye (or Holy See) which is the symbol of the religion. Eyes peer out at you from everywhere. On the interior of the temple, the floor is staggered, getting higher and higher as you move towards the altar, which is a giant sphere with the eye painted on it. Columns separate the center area from the aisles and they are decorated with colorful dragons. We were able to stay and watch a service from the balcony above. At the beginning, there was a procession of monks in robes of red, blue and yellow (representing the 3 most influential relgions), then the followers dressed in white. The service consisted of a chanting of the prayers with background music, while the followers kneeled on the floor. As it was created in Vietnam, the Caodaism religion is a source of pride for Vietnamese people who are predominately Buddhist with a sizeable Christian population.
After the temple, which was a 3 hour drive from Saigon, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels. An enormous underground network of tunnels (75 miles in total) which were used by the Viet Cong (guerilla soldiers) during the Vietnam War. There were kitchens, clinics and dining halls underground, which was split into 3 levels. We went about 100 m through one of the upper level tunnels. It was quite small and claustrophobic, difficult to imagine people living down there for years. There were huge bomb craters around the area, a remnant from the frequent air raids. One part of the exhibition was a shooting range where interested tourists could practice shooting an AK47. Thankfully no one in our group took the challenge. It’s strange to see a place like this as a tourist attraction, but as it was the area where some of the most decisisive fighting occured, the Vietnamese are quite proud of it.
I had a good feeling when I left Saigon, good feelings about the vitality of the country. Our next stop…Mui Ne, China Sea paradise.